Book Review

Robert Bly: A Lifetime in Poetry

American poetry has lost almost an entire generation of elders born in the mid- to late-1920s. Allen Ginsberg, James Dickey, Robert Creeley, James Wright, Anne Sexton, Anthony Hecht, Frank O’Hara, Denise Levertov and James Merrill left us years ago; Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery and Donald Hall more recently. W. S. Merwin died in March. From this gifted group of poets, Robert Bly may be the last man standing. Since Bly is in his nineties and has published little since his last book, Talking into the Ear of a Donkey in 2011, it is hard to know whether or not to use the past tense in discussing his work. Perhaps he will surprise us yet with something new.

Bly has always stood aloof from East Coast literary fashion. He grew up on a farm in Minnesota and has maintained that our poetry had to grow organically from the American heartland. “That a poet as great,” he wrote of William Stafford, “a poet with an imagination as resilient as Stafford’s, could come out of [Kansas] really bodes well for the literary future of the United States.” The impulse to free ourselves from our colonial origins in Europe dates at least as far back as Whitman; William Carlos Williams was also a powerful but by no means uncritical spokesman for this point of view. But American poetry of the 1950s, when Bly was starting out, had switched allegiance from Whitman to Pound and Eliot, who on the whole took their cues from European poetry.

Most of us who have been reading American poetry for many years will remember, will perhaps still have on our shelves, a copy of Bly’s first book, Silence in the Snowy Fields, published in the iconic Wesleyan University Press poetry series in 1962, its pages generously wide, its plain blue cover decorated with a black abstraction reminiscent of a Rorschach blot. Here on his farm over a thousand miles from New York, Bly wrote:

There are palaces, boats, silence among white buildings,
Iced drinks on marble tops, among cool rooms;
It is good also to be poor, and listen to the wind.

No poet, with the exception of Stafford, is as good as Bly at rendering in a plain style the deliciousness of solitude, of simple pleasures rendered sensuously. Here is “Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter” in its entirety:

It is a cold and snowy night. The main street is deserted.
The only things moving are swirls of snow.
As I lift the mailbox door, I feel its cold iron.
There is a privacy I love in this snowy night.
Driving around, I will waste more time.

Some of these poems, like “After Drinking All Night with a Friend, We Go Out in a Boat at Dawn to See Who Can Write the Best Poem,” with its outrageously long title, its use of plain, archetypal images, have become classics. Here is the poem’s last stanza:

A few friendships, a few dawns, a few glimpses of grass,
A few oars weathered by the snow and the heat,
So we drift toward shore, over cold waters,
No longer caring if we drift or go straight.

These poems, and kindred ones by Stafford, James Wright, Galway Kinnell and others, established a way of writing sometimes referred to as the “Deep Image” school. They were influenced by classical Chinese poets like Du Fu, whose poem “Written on the Wall at Chang’s Hermitage,” ends, in Kenneth Rexroth’s translation, similarly:

The way back forgotten, hidden
Away, I become like you,
An empty boat, floating, adrift.

Bly must also have read Jung early on, because he tends to think in terms of archetypes, sometimes to good effect, sometimes at the expense of accuracy and credibility. In addition, there is the question of his poetry’s extreme unevenness: often the gems lie side by side with the clunkers. In reading Bly’s Collected[1] over the past couple of months, I have often had occasion to recall Auden’s line from “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”: “You were silly like us.” Bizarre images crop up side by side with marvelous passages, like this one from a prose poem, “Sitting on Some Rocks in Shaw Cove”: “I have the sensation that half an inch under my skin there are nomad bands, stringy-legged men with firesticks and wide-eyed babies.”

There are at least four Robert Blys. One is the poet of pure lyrics like the ones I have quoted. Then there is Bly the political poet of the Vietnam War years. After his political and antiwar poetry, Bly turned to the self-help or human potential movement. His book Iron John: A Book about Men, was a best seller, and Bly became a guru of the men’s movement. And there is at least one more Bly: the polemicist. After service in the Navy, graduation from Harvard and Iowa and a few years in New York, Bly settled in rural Minnesota where, in the tradition of poets who used their magazines to advance their views, like T. S. Eliot with The Criterion and John Crowe Ransom with the Kenyon Review, he edited his fiercely polemical magazine, The Fifties (later, predictably enough, The Sixties and The Seventies). Warmly loyal to his friends, Bly was also ready to attack, sometimes viciously, those whose approach to poetry did not agree with his.

One of Bly’s most influential polemical books was his 1975 Leaping Poetry. The idea is prefigured in his brief prose piece, “Looking for Dragon Smoke,” published in 1969 as an addendum to the selection of his poems in the anthology Naked Poetry. Dragon Smoke stands for associative leaps, by which poets like Blake took their poetry beyond thought into what Bly calls “some obscure psychic woods.” These leaps were what he found missing in the generation of American poets after Eliot and Pound. Instead of roaming the “psychic woods” where associative leaps could occur, “American poetry voluntarily turned itself in. Tate and Ransom went through town after town asking, ‘Does anyone know of a good jail near here?’”

Even this early in his career as a polemicist and arbiter of poetic opinion, Bly was creating his own mythos. Free verse, or “open form,” is the forest through which, in Bly’s view, the unconscious mind may most freely wander; “form” is the town with its jail. Rural and urban respectively. “When poets talk of technique, they are usually headed for jail,” he states flatly. Bly’s polemics leave little room for nuance. But what discerning reader could ever actually confound Ransom and Tate? Tate now seems stilted and dated, while Ransom seems timeless—one of our “major minor” poets. Randall Jarrell saw the formal issue much more clearly than Bly did: “Ransom’s poems profess their limitations so candidly,” Jarrell wrote in Poetry and the Age, “almost as a principle of style, that it is hardly necessary to say they are not poems of the largest scope or the greatest intensity. But they are some of the most original poems ever written.”

Bly couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see that. He was focused on establishing the primacy of his own poetic school; his loves and his hates were both strong. Not only “formalists” like Ransom and Tate, but the Black Mountain poets like Olson and Creeley and those influenced by them. In Leaping Poetry, he wrote: “The St. Mark’s poets learned from Creeley to stay in one cave of the mind; but they are not far enough back in that room. . . . The St. Mark’s poets always have a leisure class mood about them. . .” These “rooms” and this vague and impromptu sociopolitical analysis are features of Bly’s own theoretical mythos; only he was capable of judging who met the standards he set up as well as which “rooms” were worth hanging out in. His judgments were severe. In “Letter to James Wright,” published in 1994, he wrote: “My dear James, do you know that nothing has happened / Since you died? Ammons is still writing garbage, / And the Maximus Poems are back in print.”

Two of his most vicious attacks, published in The Sixties, were “The Collapse of James Dickey” and “Robert Lowell’s Bankruptcy.” Dickey’s poem “The Firebombing,” focusing on a pilot’s experiences dropping napalm on enemy targets and his difficult adjustment to civilian life after the war, is a nuanced poetic study of the psychic wounds inflicted by war on those who serve; Bly’s response to nuance tends to be simplistic. What he demanded, in Ernest Suarez’s words, was for Dickey “to engage in didactic moral outburst . . . to condemn war and damn the pilot for having participated at all.” This would, of course, have eviscerated Dickey’s poem. As for his attack on Lowell, he had the decency to regret it later in life: “One teaspoon of envy was enough for me / To attack Robert Lowell.”

The Vietnam War was the defining event for most of the poets writing during that cataclysmic time—a time of sit-ins, teach-ins, ritual burnings of draft cards, “girls say yes to boys who say no.” Poetry suddenly became “relevant”; attending or participating in poetry readings against the war became a rite of passage. This sudden shot of “relevance” was a heady experience for the largely marginalized citizens of the republic of poetry. The Light Around the Body, though its title and some of its poems were of a piece with the spiritual quietism of Silence in the Snowy Fields, is largely taken up with poems that try to come to terms with the war, its causes and consequences. The most affecting parts of this book address without hysteria subjects like our need “To atone / For the sufferings of the stringy-chested / And the small rice-fed ones, quivering / In the helicopter like wild animals, / Shot in the chest, taken back to be questioned.”

When Bly starts to look for causes, his impulse to simplify and schematize kicks in, and his rhetoric, informed by surrealism, can become unhinged, its exaggerations manic, as in “Hatred of Men with Black Hair”:

We distrust every person on earth with black hair;
We send teams to overthrow Chief Joseph’s government;
We train natives to kill Presidents with blowdarts;
We have men loosening the nails on Noah’s Ark.

The State Department floats in the heavy jellies near the bottom
Like exhausted crustaceans, like squids who are confused . . .

This impulse probably reaches its climax in “After the Industrial Revolution, All Things Happen at Once,” with its scattershot probings of American history in search of an explanation of the current war’s brutality and illogicality:

I saw a black angel in Washington dancing
On a barge, saying, “Let us now divide kennel dogs
And hunting dogs”; Henry Cabot Lodge, in New York,
Talking of sugarcane in Cuba; Ford,
In Detroit, drinking mother’s milk;
Henry Cabot Lodge, saying, “Remember the Maine!”
Ford, saying, “History is bunk!”
And Wilson saying, “What is good for General Motors . . .”

The overblown rhetoric continued into the 1973 collection, Sleepers Joining Hands, and the long poem called “The Teeth Mother Naked at Last” marked a milestone in Bly’s mythmaking, his attempt to employ archetypes and make connections among different eras of American history. Bly’s poetry in the late sixties and early seventies abounds with things like this bizarre stanza from “Calling to the Badger”: “The old are being driven to Florida / Like Geronimo, and young men are still calling to the badger / And the otter, alone on the mountains of South Dakota.” (I’ve never quite worked out the significance of the badger in Bly’s worldview.)

The Vietnam War ended in 1975, but as early as Bly’s 1973 book, Jumping Out of Bed, one senses a new sobriety and calmness following the manic excitement and hyperbole that characterized his poetry as a star of the antiwar movement. The book contains some versions of classical Chinese poetry, and the mood is one of relaxation and retrenchment, a return to what is familiar. “Like the New Moon I Will Live My Life” begins: “When your privacy is beginning over, / how beautiful the things are that you did not notice before!”

The Morning Glory and This Body Is Made of Camphor and Gopherwood, 1975 and 1977, are full of prose poems—a form Bly praised for the lack of anxiety he felt was associated with the poetic decision to end one line and begin another one in a lineated poem. These poems are pleasant to read. Bly uses the prose form to create a poetic journal in “The Point Reyes Poems.” My favorite is “Looking at a Dead Wren in My Hand,” which begins, “Forgive the hours spent listening to radios, and the words of gratitude I did not say to teachers. I love your tiny ricelike legs, that are bars of music played in an empty church, and the feminine tail . . .” There is also a pleasing simplicity and calmness in “Snowed In Again”:

Snow has been falling for three days. The horses stay in the barn. At four I leave the house, sinking to my waist in snow, and push open the door of my writing shack. Snow falls in. At the desk there is a plant in blossom.

This is the kind of writing Bly is best at. The mythmaking of Iron John and his activities as founder of the Great Mother and New Father Conference have not, in my view, contributed much of lasting value to his poetry. The plainer and more modest Bly is, the better. I like how, in Morning Poems, 1997, he takes a calm, retrospective view of his life. He now seems relaxed enough, back home—this grizzled veteran of the poetry wars, this laureate of the men’s movement, this warrior who has helped broaden the audience for poetry, albeit at the expense of the quality of his own work—to write a conventional but insightful and closely observed, beautifully rendered poem like “A Family Photograph, Sunday Morning, 1940,” where “The women look as if they have too much to do,” “The men smile, but their eyes say hard things,” and “Two old women who guard the group on both sides / Take nothing on trust. ‘I trust my hands, and that’s all.’”

I also admire Bly’s willingness to write frankly about his own shortcomings, as he does in “Wanting More Applause at a Conference”:

I talk, and the man next to me
Talks, and he gets the applause. Or I am confused
And she makes sense. This is hard to bear.
I bear it, but it causes trouble inside the den.

Is it a mammal problem then?

To pass this greed for attention off as “a mammal problem” is evasive, but at least give the man credit for honest self-examination, even if it’s more a confessional admission than a poem.

Since the life of the spirit has been central to Bly’s vision, it might be appropriate to end by quoting some lines from a late poem of his, “Tasting Heaven,” which begins, “Some people say that every poem should have / God in it somewhere. But of course Wallace Stevens / Wasn’t one of those. We live, he said, ‘in a world / Without a heaven to follow.’” Bly ends the poem on a surprising and appealing note, free of the dogmatic utterances that have often flowed from his pen: Echoing Stevens’ “gusty / Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights” from “Sunday Morning,” he concludes, “But our gusty emotions say to me that we have / Tasted heaven many times: these delicacies / Are left over from some larger party.”
[1] Collected Poems, by Robert Bly. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. $39.95.